A Story to Orient Our Lives: Narrative
If language is too slippery and we have no certain foundation upon which to build a worldview, are Christians lost? Is there any way to find meaning in a postmodern world?
In my previous post, I identified strengths and weaknesses of deconstructive postmodernism. I turn now to narrative postmodernism, the second dominant postmodern tradition worth careful consideration. It overcomes some weaknesses of deconstructive postmodernism.
Narrative postmodernism deals with uncertainty by encouraging us to find meaning and truth in stories. The stories we tell and the way in which we tell them arise from particular points of view. Our own points of view are only intelligible as part of a larger story.Narrative postmodernism encourages us to find meaning and truth in stories. Click To Tweet
A host of factors have fashioned our perspectives on life: how we’ve been raised, what we’ve been taught, and whom we know. Most importantly, the particular community in which we dwell provides a meaningful life story. Stories truly matter. Better: stories matter truly.
Consider the great religious teachers. Moses, Mohammed, Jesus, and Gautama Buddha all lived and taught in ways that caused others to revere them. Communities emerged in their wake. These teachers and their traditions supply some of the grand stories in which we live.
Narrative postmodernists believe that understanding reality as story overcomes two main problems in modernism.
One modern tradition claims that the only things worth taking seriously are logical propositions that “picture” the world. They think the real world is comprised of independent elementary facts capable of empirical investigation.
Modernism says we can only consider something meaningful if expressed in universally reasonable or factual language. Logic, mathematics, and the natural sciences are the only adequate bricks for building a meaningful worldview.
The result of this modern view is that theology and spirituality cannot be taken seriously. After all, God cannot be conclusively verified with our five senses. “No one has seen God,” says the biblical writer. Spirituality is concerned at least in part with the unseen. The heart has reasons that reason cannot fully know.God cannot be conclusively verified with our five senses. Click To Tweet
Theology concerns itself with more than what is logical or sensory. For this reason, atheistic modernists say theology is gibberish. The church traffics in nonsense. To use the words of the modern philosopher Bertrand Russell, theology is “an opponent of progress and improvement in all the ways that diminish suffering in the world.”
The second problem inherent in modernism, say narrative postmodernists, is that each individual is considered entirely autonomous. Modernism champions independence. Among other things, this means that truth is individualistic. We’ve already seen that forms of deconstructive postmodernism have this problem.
Narrative postmodernism argues that meaning is found in, and arises out of, particular communities. Truth is communal, not individualistic.Narratives postmodernists say truth is communal, not individualistic. Click To Tweet
Narrative postmodernists agree that there is no objective all-encompassing standard by which to judge truth. Universal reason is an illusion. But they retain a place for reason, meaning, and truth. The community’s language games and forms of life determine what is reasonable, meaningful and true.
Take the word “liberal” as an example. Some communities associate the word with ways of thinking they reject outright. In other communities, the word means generous and openhanded. Some mainly use “liberal” to refer to progressive politics. Still others use the word to mean a wide variety of influences. The context and the community’s forms of life determine the meaning of “liberal.”
George Lindbeck’s book, The Nature of Doctrine, is a forerunner for the Christian appropriation of narrative postmodernism. To be a Christian, argues Lindbeck, is to become part of a community formed by the Christian cultural-linguistic system. Converting to Christianity is more about joining a new team than embracing a new set of ideas or beliefs. Team life and vocabulary identify the team’s allegiances.
One of the more powerful forms of Christian narrative postmodernism adopts the label, Radical Orthodoxy. This theological sentiment seeks to rethink the Christian tradition without the constraints of a modernist worldview. According to Radical Orthodox theologians, modernity is a heretical deviation from orthodoxy.
Radical Orthodoxy critically retrieves premodern roots of Christianity – particularly resources in Augustine and medieval theologians. It especially appreciates what philosophers call, “Continental philosophy.”
Graham Ward describes the Radical Orthodoxy program in this way: “Employing the tools of critical reflexivity honed by continental thinking, taking on board the full implications of what has been termed the linguistic turn, Radical Orthodoxy reads the contemporary world through the Christian tradition, weaving it into the narrative of that tradition.”
Other Christian narrative theologians call their theological position, “Postliberal.” Postliberal theologians are interested in practices and liturgies derived from the classic Christian traditions. They regard the Bible as offering a story arising from a particular form of life and with a unique language.
Narrative postmodernism allows Christians to evade criticism from those outside the Christian community (e.g., modernists, liberals, Muslims). If narrative postmodernism is true, we should not expect an outsider to understand Christianity’s community-derived logic. An outsider’s critique is only valid if it corresponds with some part of the story Christians already affirm.
Narrative postmodernism has its critics, of course. Here is some of what critics say:
While narrative postmodernism rightfully asks Christians to listen attentatively to its own tradition, critics argue it allows no space for genuine criticism from within the community itself. The community cannot hear the voice of the prophets – both inside and outside – if it accepts without question the old, old story passed down.
For instance, if Christian practices or ancient Christian worldviews promote patriarchy, anti-Semitism, or ecological recklessness, narrative postmodernism provides no standard beyond the community’s own narrative by which to seek change. There can be no reference to a universal authority that transcends the community’s particular language game.
Critics of narrative postmodernism are also often dissatisfied with the narrative model, or lack thereof, for how one should understand the person, human self, soul, or individual. While modernity wrongly deemed individuals unrelated and essentially autonomous, narrative postmodernism seems not to allow persons authentic independence. Authoritarian communities can be just as devastating as isolated individualism.Authoritarian communities can be just as devastating as isolated individualism. Click To Tweet
Critics question narrative postmodernism’s grounding of truth in the community. While narrative postmodernists overcome radical individual relativism, they shift to a relativism of communities. What is true is relative to a community and its way of life. There is no over-arching or universal standard by which to judge the adequacy of diverse truth-claims offered by communities that disagree with one another. One cannot appeal to ultimate truth, for instance, when seeking to convert nonChristians.
Some critics argue, finally, that the Christian story itself requires us to embrace the possibility that truth and meaning exists outside the Christian community. If God is present to all creation, Christians must listen for truth outside Christendom’s conceptual walls. Evangelism and interfaith dialogue requires one to remain open to transformation by those outside one’s own linguistic community. Christians ought to seek a grand narrative, say critics of narrative postmodernism, that accounts for truth wherever it emerges.If God is present to all creation, Christians must listen for truth outside Christendom. Click To Tweet
I find narrative postmodernism helpful in many ways. It rightly calls us away from radical individualism and radical relativism. It reminds us that the community has a wisdom that transcends its individual parts.
Narrative postmodernism rightly reminds us that truth is bigger than what we can condense in logical propositions and perceive through our sensory organs.
But I join the critics who seek an overarching narrative. I think God’s truth transcends the Christian community – although I also think the broad Christian tradition does a better job than other religious traditions telling us about God.
I also think that an adequate postmodern theology provides a balance between individual and community. Modernity surely swung the balance too far toward individualism. Narrative postmodernism overcompensates, however, by overly privileging the community. We need a healthy balance.
While I don’t think deconstructive postmodernism serves well as the primary framework for contemporary Christian theologians, I also don’t think narrative postmodernism functions well as the primary framework. There is much in narrative postmodernism to which I say “yes.” However, the tradition still prompts me to say “but.”
I recommend that postmodern Christian theologians draw from narrative postmodernism. But I also recommend that Christians seek an overarching narrative in which to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Or, perhaps better put, the gospel of Jesus Christ points to an overarching narrative about God and creation that transcends all individual and communal narratives.
We may never grasp that overarching narrative in its entirety. But settling for what we know is only part of the story — as important a part as that may be — is ultimately unsatisfying.The gospel points to an overarching narrative that transcends individual and communal narratives. Click To Tweet